Crystal Ball Check-In: How Did We Do at Forecasting 2018 Philanthropy?


Making predictions for the coming year is the kind of gimmicky thing that media sites do to get clicks. And it works: Our Philanthropy Forecast, 2018, was among the most popular articles we published last year.

I’m not sure exactly why readers eat this stuff up, but I can say why we enjoy making these predictions—because, like our Philanthropy Awards, it’s an opportunity to think about the bigger picture of what’s happening throughout a philanthrosphere that’s hopping with action right now. It’s also a lot of fun to toss spaghetti up against the wall every January and then, a year later, to swing back around and see what stuck.

We’ll be publishing our Philanthropy Forecast for 2019 later this month. Meanwhile, though, let’s take a spin through our 2018 predictions and review which ones came true, which didn’t, and why.

Prediction #1: Charitable Giving Doesn’t Drop—Not Yet

Too early to say. It will be months before complete numbers on giving in 2018 are available, but preliminary data from the Fundraising Effectiveness Project suggests there’s been a falloff in giving this year, just as many experts predicted in the wake of the 2017 tax. Still, we’re going to stick with our prediction that total giving won't actually come in lower for 2018, thanks to increased outlays by the ultra-wealthy.

Prediction #2: The Giving Gap Widens Further

Right, likely. If the tax law has indeed depressed giving in 2018, it’s most likely among Americans of more modest means who are no longer incentivized to give because of the higher standard deduction. Meanwhile, 2018 was another banner year for big gifts from top donors, including Michael Bloomberg. (Here’s why the growing giving gap is a problem.)

Prediction #3: New Mega-Givers Emerge

Right. This was the year that Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos joined the ranks of big-league philanthropists. (See below.) Also, billionaire Craig Newmark emerged as a mega-giver, tapping his Craigslist fortune.

Prediction: #4: Existing Mega-Givers Gain Steam

Right. A range of top philanthropists stepped up their giving in 2018, including Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Steve and Connie Ballmer, Michael Bloomberg, Hans Wyss, Len Blavatnik, Philip Anschutz and Paul Allen.

Prediction #5: Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos Make Their Move

Right. The Amazon founder and his wife announced a $2 billion commitment for early learning and homelessness.

Prediction #6: Bill and Melinda Gates Surprise Us

Partly Right. America’s top philanthropists made the biggest shift in their philanthropy in years, when their foundation announced an initial $158 million commitment to fighting poverty in the U.S. But since many saw the move coming, it wasn’t that surprising.

Prediction #7: Most Likely Surprise: New Work on U.S. Poverty

Right. The new work on poverty started gestating in 2016, when the Gates Foundation began a fact-finding effort around this topic in partnership with the Urban Institute.

Prediction #8: Legacy Foundations Continue to Decline in Relative Size and Importance

Too early to say. A growing share of the largest U.S. foundations, as measured by annual giving, are piloted by living donors—a sea change from earlier times—and that tilt likely became even more pronounced in 2018, although data isn’t yet available. Whether legacy foundations are becoming less “important” is a far more subjective question. But it sure feels that way, with living donors increasingly shaping the funding landscape in areas like education, poverty, medical research and global development.

Prediction #9: But Living Donors and Legacy Foundations Forge Closer Ties

Right. This year saw more evidence of collaboration between newcomers and institutional grantmakers—for example, a new partnership between CZI and the Rockefeller Foundation on community economic development.

Prediction #10: Funders Step Up the Push for Equity

Right. In addition to the collaboration between CZI and Rockefeller, new equity grantmaking included the Gates anti-poverty work, expanded giving by the Ballmer Group (including opening an office in Detroit), an increase in urban grantmaking by JPMorgan Chase, and a $36 million investment in Raj Chetty’s new Mobility Institute by Gates, Bloomberg, CZI, Ballmer and the Overdeck Family Foundation. In addition, Bloomberg’s historic $1.8 billion gift to Johns Hopkins this year aims to expand access to the school among lower-income students, a cause that other higher ed donors like Ron Perelman have also taken up.

Prediction #11: Racial Justice Funding Cools

Wrong, likely. As predicted, we didn’t see any new big, new initiatives specifically around racial justice in 2018. But a lot of activity is underway to fund movement building and local work in communities of color, as well as to organize donors of color, including through new giving circles.

Prediction #12: Except in the Arts, Where Diversity Giving Grows

Hard to say. Efforts to boost diversity in the arts world continued strong in 2018, including a $5 million gift by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation and a similar size gift by the Walton Family Foundation, but it’s hard to say if momentum here actually increased.

Prediction #13: #MeToo Makes Its Mark on the Fundraising World

Right. A scandal felled the CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation after his top deputy was accused of abusive and inappropriate conduct.

Prediction #14: New Money Flows for Climate Change

Right. As the Global Climate Action Summit came to a close in September, nearly 30 foundations announced more than $3 billion in new pledges for climate action.

Prediction #15: “Big Bets” Keep Coming

Right. One of the biggest news events this year was the launch of The Audacious Project, a new platform for moving big money for social change “at scale,” with more $400 million committed in the first round of grants in the April.

Prediction #16: A Billionaire Takes on Opioids

Right. Overnight, Michael Bloomberg became the nation’s biggest donor fighting the opioid epidemic with a $50 million commitment in November to the cause.

Prediction #17: Refugees Finally Get More Attention

Partly Right. LEGO’s $100 million gift to educate refugee children was a big deal, but otherwise, we didn’t see any notable new action on an urgent global problem that most funders ignore.

Prediction #18: Participatory Grantmaking Gains Steam

Right. Interest continued to grow in 2018 around allowing affected stakeholders to direct grant money. The Foundation Center published a new guide to the topic, while we reported on several new foundation initiatives for participatory grantmaking (including this one).

Prediction #19: Foundation Impact Investing Loses Steam

Wrong. We didn’t see any signs of “less heat around this issue in 2018,” as predicted. The Nathan Cummings Foundation was one funder that made a bold move here this year, while we reported on several community foundations getting into this game.

Prediction #20: The Council on Foundations Faces Further Decline

Hard to say. We’re not privy to COF’s membership numbers, but stand by our point that the organization’s decline is systemic in an era of stronger funders’ affinity groups and regional associations of grantmakers.

Prediction #21: Record Giving Flows to Influence a Midterm Election

Right, likely. While it may be years (or never) before we know the full extent of philanthropic giving to influence the 2018 mid-terms, we saw plenty of evidence of an unprecedented level of giving for voter mobilization and protection efforts in the lead-up to the election.

Prediction #22: Anti-Trump Giving Keeps Growing

Hard to say. While the surge in progressive philanthropy to counter Trumpism and the GOP isn’t a passing post-election phenomenon, there’s no easy way to measure if it continued to gain steam through 2018. We’ll have a better fix on this when final fundraising numbers come in from groups like the ACLU, ProPublica and Planned Parenthood.

Prediction #23: New Revelations About Dark Liberal Money

Partly right. It’s still hard to know the degree to which big donors and foundations are anonymously channeling new piles of cash through DAFs and other intermediaries in the wake of the 2016 election. But this year saw two top climate donors, Nat Simons and Laura Baxter-Simons, pull back the curtain on an anonymous giving operation that involved offshore accounts, while another liberal donor, Reid Hoffman, apologized for funding disinformation efforts in an Alabama senate race, part of a broader set of hard-to-track contributions Hoffman has made since the 2016 election.

Prediction #24: Howard Schultz Sends a Signal

Wrong. The founder of Starbucks could still seek the presidency, but we didn’t see him use his philanthropy to position himself for a run, as we predicted.

Prediction #25: Scandal Hits the Charitable Sector

Right. The New York State Attorney General filed a lawsuit that shut down the Donald Trump Foundation, while the president of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation was forced to resign. And bad headlines kept coming about Oxfam and other global NGOs.

Prediction #26: Wealthy Suburbs Fight the IRS Over Giving Rules

Wrong. There were efforts in some places with sky-high property taxes to offset the effects of the 2017 tax law by having residents pay for schools and other public goods with deductible charitable gifts instead of non-deductible taxes. But there were no major court battles around this tactic as we predicted.

Prediction #27: Another Corporate Funder Is Disgraced

Wrong. As usual, there was more news of corporations using their philanthropy in nakedly self-serving ways, including gifts for anti-addiction efforts by pharma companies that made billions selling opioids. But such hypocrisy tends to fly under the radar, and no company was actually “disgraced.”

Prediction #28: Corporate Philanthropy Grows More Strategic

Right. We continued to see evidence this year of increasingly sophisticated corporate giving, with an eye on greater impact, continuing an ongoing trend.

Prediction #29: Community Foundations Up Their Game

Hard to say. We predicted that these institutions would “put more sizzle into their programs and brands to romance a new donor class” in the face of rising competition from commercial DAFs. We didn’t see lots of moves like that, although we did report on more community foundations getting into impact investing, which is of keen interest to many new donors.

Prediction #30: Higher Education Draws More Fire

Wrong. We predicted that Congress and state lawmakers would keep probing university endowments or even dig into suspect fundraising claims by some universities. It didn’t happen.

Prediction #31: A Campus Gift Sets a New Record

Right. Bloomberg’s $1.8 billion pledge to Johns Hopkins busted all the records.

Prediction #32: Giving by Most Alumni Keeps Falling

Too early to say, but likely right. In recent years, wealthy alumni have been giving more while the rest are giving less. The campus giving gap was likely exacerbated by the 2017 tax law, but we won’t know for certain until later this year.

Prediction #33: The Conservative Media Finds New Nonprofit Targets

Wrong. While right-wing media stepped up its attacks on George Soros, such outlets didn’t “broaden their menu of targets,” as we predicted, to include places like the Ford Foundation.

Prediction #34: Tech Philanthropy Faces Blowback

Right. There was widespread criticism of the new move into philanthropy by Jeff Bezos amid a broader distrust of big tech.

Prediction #35: Giving for Medical Research Yields a Big Breakthrough

Wrong. While we reported on various biomedical gains thanks to private research funding, it’s hard to think of anything that would count as a “big breakthrough.”

Prediction #36: Grantmaking for STEM Slows Down

Hard to say. We predicted that the “locomotive” of giving for STEM education would slow down in 2018. It’s not clear that happened.

Prediction #37: Chinese Philanthropy Looms Larger

Wrong. There were lots of headlines involving China this year, but few involved philanthropy or confirmed our prediction that big, new donors would step forward from that country in 2018.